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April 21, 2015 / 2 Iyar, 5775
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Loving Books, Fearing For Their Future


I love books. I love our sacred Jewish texts and the many splendid commentaries that accompany them, but in truth all leather-bound, gold-embossed books call out to me.

Verily, I am a person of the book. I read books, I write them, I consume them.

“Books,” wrote the historian Barbara Tuchman, “are the carriers of civilization…. They are companions, teachers, magicians, bankers of the treasures of the mind. Books are humanity in print.”

I love libraries, their respect for work done in silence and solitude, the quiet solicitousness of librarians, their efficiency and kindness.

I love fine writing, great writing – the kind that lasts.

A book lover lives an enchanted life. She is someone who can, in an instant, escape her ordinary life, travel to any country on earth, time-travel to any century; she can enter a peasant’s hut or a king’s bedroom, witness a childbirth, a love affair, a murder, a coronation.

A book lover is someone who is never lonely, someone who may actually believe that fictional characters are more real, more alive, than “real” people, and that their stories are as important as the stories of our “real” lives.

If I want to know something about someone, I’ll find out what books they’ve read or are reading. Then I’ll inquire about their childhoods.

I admit it. I eat books. I possess them. I write in the margins and on the blank front and back pages. I plant my post-its everywhere.

Unlike a librarian, I am no longer willing to lend my books out. They are part of my daily life. At any given moment, my writing might require just that book. Also, they are so used, so lovingly battered. How can they unashamedly leave home?

In my lifetime, whenever I’ve made a major geographical move, I have been forced to give away books – anywhere from 2,000-10,000 at a given time. Once, a thousand books of mine were held up at the Khyber Pass – but that’s a story for another day.

I began reading when I was three years old and began writing when I was eight. My first poem was published when I was seventeen and my first article when I was twenty-three. I decided to get a Ph.D. and became a professor-psychotherapist (a “Viennese witch-doctor”) in order to support my writing habit.

I’ve been publishing for nearly fifty years now. I’ve published thirteen books and written fifteen. I’ve worked with many major publishing houses. As we all know, many things have changed. There’s a lot less money lying about. Small bookstores are shutting down. The big, impersonal chains rule. Buying online rules. Discounts rule. Even some library branches are shutting down.

But mainly I worry that books, and the habits of thought that reading shapes, the time it takes to shape such habits of thoughtfulness, are rapidly going out of style. Technology, youth, and marketplace demands have conspired in the minimization of books as we’ve known them. Is it too far-fetched to suggest that one day our books may reside in museums rather than in libraries?

Groucho Marx may not have seemed like the bookish type, but the legendary comedian once quipped, “I find television to be very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go in the other room and read a book.”

But that that was then and this is now, and today younger people prefer books on Kindle and online. Even in an era of book clubs, people in general still prefer quick books, easy books, books with a “point” (especially books by celebrities that are often ghostwritten by ghosts who are not great writers), books that can be listened to while driving, books that are easy to market, books that “sell,” bestsellers that can be turned into blockbuster movies or videos or small YouTube sensations or maybe even into T-shirt logos.

I fear our traditional aesthetic and intellectual standards, both for fact-checking and for the quality of writing, has plummeted. Short is now sweet, long is passé and out of fashion. Anything goes on the Internet. There’s no mediator, no editor, no expert, no grown-up in charge.

We are shortchanging coming generations, robbing them of the pleasures of savoring sparkling prose, of wrapping their minds around a complex novel or a breathtaking historical narrative.

About the Author: Dr. Phyllis Chesler is a professor emerita of psychology, a Middle East Forum fellow, and the author of fifteen books including “Women and Madness” (1972), “The New Anti-Semitism” (2003), and her latest, “An American Bride in Kabul” (2013). Her articles are archived at www.phyllis-chesler.com.


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